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testpreptraining

The only thing they all had in common was their love of San Juan Island. It was part of an archipelago that consisted of approximately two hundred islands, some of them encompassed by the Washington mainland counties of Whatcom and Skagit. The Nolans had spent their childhood in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, a place sheltered from much of the grayness of the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

The Nolans had grown up breathing in humid ocean air, their bare feet constantly coated with the silt of exposed mudflats. They had been gifted with damp lavender mornings, dry blue days, and the most beautiful sunsets on earth. Nothing could compare to the sight of nimble sandpipers chasing the waves. Or of bald eagles swooping low and fast in pursuit of prey. Or of the dance of orcas, their sleek forms diving, spy-hopping, and cutting through the Salish Sea as they fed on the rich pulse of salmon runs.

The brothers had rambled over every inch of the island, up and down wind-bitten slopes above the seacoast, among somber columns of timber forests, and across meadows thick with orchard grasses and wild-flowers with alluring names…Chocolate Lily, Shooting Star, Sea Blush. No mix of water, sand, and sky had ever been as perfectly proportioned.

Although they had gone off to college and tried living in other places, the island had always lured them back. Even Alex, with all his hard-shelled ambitions, had come back. It was the kind of life in which you knew the local farmers who grew most of the produce you ate, and the guy who made the soap you washed with, and you were on a first-name basis with the owners of the restaurants you went to. You could hitchhike safely, with friendly islanders giving one another a lift when they needed it.

Victoria had been the only one in the family who had ever found something worth leaving the island for. She had fallen in love with the glass peaks and cement valleys of Seattle, the urban coffee-and-culture scene, the stylishly understated restaurants that seduced your taste buds, the sensory labyrinth of Pike Place Market.

In response to a comment of Sam’s that everyone did too much talking and thinking in the city, Victoria had replied that Seattle made her smarter.

“I don’t need to be smarter,” Sam had said. “The smarter you are, the more reasons you have to be miserable.”

“That explains why we Nolans are always in such high spirits,” Mark had told Victoria, making her laugh.

“Not Alex, though,” she had said, sobering after a minute. “I don’t think Alex has been happy a day in his life.”

“Alex doesn’t want happiness,” Mark had replied. “He’s fine with the substitutes.”

Bringing his mind back to the present, Mark wondered what Victoria would say if she knew that he was going to raise Holly on San Juan Island. He didn’t realize he had given voice to the thought until Sam replied.

“Like she would have been surprised? Vick knew you’d never move away from the island. Your coffee business is there, your home, your friends. I’m sure she knew you’d take Holly to Friday Harbor, if anything happened to her.”

Mark nodded, feeling hollow and bleak. The magnitude of the child’s loss was not something he could dwell on for long.

“Did she say anything today?” Sam asked. “I didn’t hear a peep out of her.”

In the days since she had been told of her mother’s death, Holly had been silent, only responding to questions by nodding or shaking her head. She wore a distant, dazed expression, having retreated to an inner world where no one could intrude. On the night of Victoria’s death, Mark had gone straight from the hospital to her house, where a babysitter was looking after the little girl. He had broken the news to the child in the morning, and had stayed practically within arm’s reach of her ever since.

“Nothing,” Mark said. “If she doesn’t start talking by tomorrow, I’m going to take her to the pediatrician.” He let out a shallow, shaken breath before adding, “I don’t even know who that is.”

“There’s a list on the fridge,” Sam said. “It’s got a few numbers on it, including one for Holly’s doctor. I’m guessing Vick kept it there in case a babysitter needed it in an emergency.”

Mark went to the refrigerator, pulled off a Post-it note, and stuck it in his wallet. “Great,” he said sardonically. “Now I know at least as much as the babysitter.”

“It’s a start.”

Returning to the table, Mark took a long, deliberate swallow of whiskey. “There’s something I need to talk to you about. Living in my condo at Friday Harbor isn’t going to work for me and Holly. There’s only one bedroom, and no yard for her to play in.”

“Are you going to sell it?”

“Rent it out, maybe.”

“And then where would you go?”

Mark paused for a long, deliberate moment. “You’ve got plenty of room.”

Sam’s eyes widened. “No, I don’t.”

Two years earlier Sam had bought fifteen acres at False Bay in pursuit of his long-held dream to establish his own winery. The property, with its well-drained sand and gravel soil and cool-climate terroir, was perfect for a vineyard. Along with the land had come a cavernous dilapidated Victorian country farm house with a wraparound porch, multiple bay windows, a big corner turret, and multicolored fish-scale shingles.

“Fixer-upper” was far too kind a term to use for the place, which was troubled by creaks, sags, weird drips, and puddles without apparent origin. Past residents had left their mark on the house, installing bathrooms where none had been intended, putting in flimsy chipwood walls, shallow closets with wobbly sliding pocket doors, slathering cherrywood shelves and moldings with cheap white paint. The original hardwood floors had been covered with linoleum or shag carpeting you could actually lie on and make rug angels.

But the house had three things going for it: there was more than enough room for two bachelors and a six-year-old kid, there was a big yard and orchard, and its location on False Bay was Mark’s favorite part of the island.

“It’s not happening,” Sam said flatly. “I like living alone.”

“What do you have to lose by letting us stay with you? There’s not a single aspect of your life that we would interfere with.” We. Us. Pronouns that were apparently going to be replacing the “I” in most of Mark’s sentences from now on.

“You’re kidding, right? Do you know what life is like for single guys with kids? You miss out on all the hot women, because none of them wants to get conned into babysitting, and they don’t want to raise someone else’s kid. Even if by some miracle of God you manage to get a hot woman, you can’t keep her. No spontaneous weekends in Portland or Vancouver, no wild sex, no sleeping late, ever.”

“You don’t do that stuff now,” Mark pointed out. “You spend all your time in the vineyard.”

“The point is, that’s my choice. But there’s no choice when there’s a kid. While your friends are knocking back a beer and watching a game, you’re at the grocery store looking for stain-fighting liquids and Goldfish crackers.”

“It’s not forever.”

“No, just the rest of my youth.” Sam lowered his head to the table as if to pound it, then settled for resting it on a forearm.

“How are you defining your youth, Sam? Because from where I’m sitting, your youth jumped the shark a couple years back.”

Sam stayed motionless except for the middle finger that shot up from his right hand. “I had plans for my thirties,” he said in a muffled voice. “And none of them included kids.”

“Neither did mine.”

“I’m not ready for this.”

“Neither am I. That’s why I need your help.” Mark let out a taut sigh. “Sam, when have I ever asked you for anything?”

“Never. But do you have to start now?”

Mark made his tone quietly persuasive. “Think of it this way…we’ll start off slow. We’ll be Holly’s tour guides to life. Easygoing tour guides who never come up with crap like ‘reasonable punishments’ or ‘because I said so.’ I’ve already accepted that I won’t do the best job raising a kid…but unlike our dad, my mistakes are going to be benign. I’m not going to backhand her when she doesn’t clean up her room. I’m not going to make her eat celery if she doesn’t like it. No mind games. Hopefully she’ll end up with a decent worldview and a self-supporting job. God knows however we do this, it’ll be better than sending her off to be raised by strangers. Or worse, our other relatives.”

A few muttered curses emerged from the hard-muscled crucible of Sam’s arms. As Mark had hoped, his brother’s innate sense of fairness had gotten the better of him. “Okay.” His back rose and fell with a sigh before he repeated, “Okay. But I have conditions. Starting with, I want the rent from your condo when you lease it out.”

“Done.”

“And I’ll need your help fixing up the house.”

Mark gave him a wary look. “I’m not great with home renovations. I can do the basics, but—”

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